The stability of a high-speed, axisymmetric boundary layer is investigated using secondary instability theory and direct numerical simulation. Parametric studies based on the temporal secondary instability theory identify subharmonic secondary instability as a likely path to transition on a cylinder at Mach 4.5. The theoretical predictions are validated by direct numerical simulation at temporally-evolving primary and secondary disturbances in an axisymmetric boundary-layer flow. At small amplitudes of the secondary disturbance, predicted growth rates agree to several significant digits with values obtained from the spectrally-accurate solution of the compressible Navier-Stokes equations. Qualitative agreement persists to large amplitudes of the secondary disturbance. Moderate transverse curvature is shown to significantly affect the growth rate of axisymmetric second mode disturbances, the likely candidates of primary instability. The influence of curvature on secondary instability is largely indirect but most probably significant, through modulation of the primary disturbance amplitude. Subharmonic secondary instability is shown to be predominantly inviscid in nature, and to account for spikes in the Reynolds stress components at or near the critical layer.